A lot of discussion here and elsewhere in recent weeks has focused on some of the individual mistakes that have been key in almost all of the Cowboys' six losses and cumulatively may have been a big part of why the Cowboys are 2-6. That's not to say that Tony Romo's injury hasn't impacted the 2015 Cowboys, but Romo's absence is not the only reason the Cowboys are on a six-game skid.
Missed tackles, dropped balls, penalties, fumbles, missed blocks, muffed punts and missed opportunities have been a staple of the Cowboys game in all three phases during their recent slide. Sure, these things are always magnified in losses, but it doesn't mean they are not happening.
And it's not just the bit-players and the bottom of the roster guys that are making critical mistakes. It's certainly not all on the two backup QBs the Cowboys have tried unsuccessfully.
On paper, the 2015 Cowboys should have been a continuation of the 2014 Cowboys. Yet this 2-6 team looks nothing like last year's 12-4 team. In hindsight, the backup QB situation was not addressed adequately, as many had pointed out repeatedly since the day the Cowboys signed Brandon Weeden in 2014. And it didn't need any amount of hindsight or foresight to understand that the Cowboys were not going to repeat the 2014 success in the ground game.
But they kept their successful coaching staff in place, they even added to their exceptional O-line, they brought in more top tier talent in the draft than anybody could have expected, got better at linebacker, and improved their defensive line. Yet none of that has paid off in the W/L column.
There's no question that the 2015 Cowboys are playing hard, but ultimately it's just not enough.
And that's especially true for the stars on the team. They just weren't able to do enough to compensate for the injury to their QB. Romo carried this team for years, and when the time came for others to carry that weight, they couldn't. They couldn't convert on a third down when they needed to, they couldn't get a stop when they needed to have one, they couldn't catch a ball that was thrown right into their hands when it mattered most, and they committed penalties when they could least afford them.
Today the Cowboys gather for practice for the first time with the certainty that they are out of playoff contention. Will this team, led by its stars, continue fighting or will it lie down against the Bucs on Sunday?
Players like Morris Claiborne, Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, Jeremy Mincey, Kyle Wilber, James Hanna and 10 other players will be unrestricted free agents after the season. They will use the remaining eight games to audition for a new contract, in Dallas or elsewhere.
And the same is true for players still under contract for 2016. With the added benefit of possibly getting Tony Romo back at some point, perhaps as early as the Miami game but potentially also later, they have eight more games to show the team what their value to the 2016 Cowboys can be. And that value isn't necessarily on the field, it may just as well be in the form of draft picks received in a trade or cap space gained by a release.
If you're the GM, you're seeing a team that couldn't step up when its starting QB went down. And then the question becomes, what do you need to do to make sure next year's team can step up when the starting QB goes down again. If your answer is 'get a better backup QB' or 'draft a new franchise QB' then you're probably going to repeat the mistake that got you into this mess in the first place: you're asking one guy to carry the team all by himself again.
Which is why you're starting an eight-game audition today: who are the guys on this year's team that you'll be able to count on next year to carry the weight when the QB goes down again. And if this year's stars couldn't do it, then you may want to look a little deeper into your roster.
Because if you're going to be sitting at home in January, at least sit at home with a young team. That way you have a chance to develop for the future.